VANCOUVER - Two elevator companies in British Columbia can continue to use GPS technology to keep tabs on their employees after the province's information commissioner rejected workers' complaints that the practice was an unfair — and illegal — intrusion into their privacy.
However, one of the companies was ordered to temporarily stop using the technology until it provides its workers with better notice about what information is collected and how it is used.
The pair of decisions, issued this week, are the latest from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to uphold the rights of employers to track the whereabouts of their workers — a trend one privacy advocate says is "pushing the limits" of the law and the privacy rights of the public.
Unionized workers at ThyssenKrupp Elevator Ltd. and Kone Inc. filed complaints over the use of GPS tracking. The workers at both companies are members of the same local of the International Union of Elevator Constructors.
ThyssenKrupp has been using devices installed on its vehicles to monitor its mechanics since early 2011, while Kone has issued GPS-enabled phones that record its mechanics' activity since 2010.
The workers argued such GPS tracking violates the province's privacy legislation and represented an "offence to the dignity" of the companies' employees.
The companies, on the other hand, insisted it was reasonable to use the GPS data to more efficiently deploy its staff, ensure mechanics could be located in the event of an emergency, provide more accurate billing information to clients, and ensure workers were indeed where they said they were.
Privacy adjudicator Ross Alexander sided with the companies, concluding they were acting within the law.
"I am satisfied that use of the system is likely to be effective for Kone's stated purposes," Alexander wrote in one of the two decisions.
"Kone mechanics are a mobile workforce who generally work alone in widely distributed geographic areas, so regular in-person supervision is not practical. ... Kone's use of the GPS information is not, in my view, an offence to dignity of employees that tips the scales against Kone."
A separate decision regarding ThyssenKrupp's tracking practices reached similar conclusions.
Kone issues its employees cellphones, allowing them to indicate when they come on and off shift, and when they arrive and leave a work site. The system then transmits that data back to the employer.
ThyssenKrupp's system relies on devices that are installed on its vehicles. The devices record and transit location data, as well as information about the vehicle, such as its speed and instances of "harsh" braking or "rapid acceleration."
Vincent Gogolek, executive director at the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, noted the Office of the Privacy Commissioner also ruled on GPS tracking in two previous decisions, last December and in February of this year.
In each case, the commissioner's office sided with employers, though Gogolek noted only the Kone case focused on cellphone tracking, while the others involved tracking only vehicles.
"It's pushing the limits of the law," Gogolek said in an interview.
"The tracking of somebody in a company or government-supplied vehicle is one thing, but when it's a cellphone, then it's something that's actually on your person as you walk around. We're now starting to get pretty close to the line."
Gogolek said the cases highlight the need for a fresh debate about the limits of privacy in a world where it has become exceedingly easy to track anyone's location — a reality that wasn't contemplated when the province's privacy legislation was drafted.
"I think we need to have a debate on this, because the technology is getting more and more sophisticated," he said.
"The law is more than 10 years old now. It may be a situation where we have to look at this and say, 'Are we comfortable with this?'"
The workers also argued they weren't provided with sufficient notice about the technology and how it would be used.
While the adjudicator concluded Kone provided adequate notice to its employees, in the form of letters and slideshow presentations, he said ThyssenKrupp did not.
ThyssenKrupp was ordered to stop using its GPS system by Oct. 10, and not resume until it proves it has provided adequate notice to its workers.
While the adjudicator concluded Kone's notice to its workers satisfied the requirements in the province's privacy legislation, he still recommended the company create a detailed policy that outlines how workers' phones will be used to track GPS data.
Neither ThyssenKrupp, Kone, nor the union could be reached for comment.